Democrats' Hopefuls for 2000 Give Nod to Hispanic Numbers
By Michael A. Fletcher
Aides to Vice President Gore called La Raza two weeks ago hoping to land a speaking spot before the group's annual convention. House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), locked up his appearance at the meeting here months ago.
Leaders of the nation's largest Hispanic advocacy group call the early attention from the presumed front-runners for the Democratic presidential nomination in the year 2000 unprecedented and another indication of the growing national political clout of Latinos.
"I believe there is an understanding among candidates that the Hispanic community is much more important in the political process than it was in years past," said Raul Yzaguirre, president of the National Council of La Raza.
Latinos now make up just over 10 percent of the nation's population and are projected to overtake African Americans as the nation's largest minority group early in the next century. For many years the political potential of Hispanics 69 percent of whom are citizens and therefore eligible to vote went largely untapped, mostly because of internal divisions and a lack of political organization.
But jolted by a wave of efforts to curtail benefits to immigrants and limit the number of people entering the country, the Hispanic vote coalesced into a national force in the 1996 presidential election, when Hispanics registered and voted in record numbers.
"People registered and voted largely as an act of self defense," Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
According to the group's statistics, the Hispanic electorate grew by nearly 29 percent between the 1992 and 1996 presidential elections. That growth was fueled by what activists call a wave of "immigrant bashing," including efforts to bar illegal aliens and their children from receiving even basic government services, curtailing welfare benefits for tax-paying legal residents of the United States and the on-going efforts to eliminate bilingual education in California.
"[California Gov.] Pedro Wilson did in two years what the Latino leadership has been unable to do in 30 years, and that is to scare the begeebers out of us," said Antonia Hernandez, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Last year, Hispanic voters delivered big for President Clinton, giving him 72 percent of their votes and helping to power him to victory in such crucial states as Florida and California.
That lesson did not go unnoticed by both Gore and Gephardt, who made campaign-style appearances this week before some 4,000 Latino community and political activists attending La Raza's convention. While political candidates have appeared at past conventions, officials here said they do not recall potential candidates addressing their group so early in the political process. "[The major candidates] finally realize that there is a political group of people they have to deal with," Hernandez said. "But whether their interest is sincere or just political posturing remains to be seen.'
In his speech today, Gephardt touted Democratic efforts to restore welfare benefits for legal immigrants, secure additional tax credits for low-income working families, and to raise the minimum wage.
Gephardt also spoke out against people who voice fears about the nation's high level of Hispanic immigration. "In each generation there has been some group of reactionaries who believe we should not unite our country but divide it," Gephardt said.
On Monday, Gore addressed the convention in a speech flavored with Spanish phrases. He told the crowd that he wanted to find new ways to reward working poor families. Hispanics are far more likely than whites or blacks to hold full-time jobs that pay poverty-level wages.
"Any family that works 40 hours or more a week in America should not live below the poverty line," Gore said.
Despite the kind words from the would-be candidates, several conference attendees remained skeptical about whether action will follow the rhetoric. Some noted that Clinton has been slow to appoint Hispanics to top posts in his administration, despite the strong support he received from Hispanic voters in his last election.
But pointing to projections that show that one in every five Americans will be Latino by the year 2035, even the most skeptical activists acknowledged that national political candidates inevitably will have to address the interests of Hispanics.
Borrowing from the civil rights anthem, "We Shall Overcome," Vargas said of Hispanics: "We shall overwhelm."
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